“I used to say, when I was young, that truth was the majority vote of the nation that could lick all others.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Natural Law,” 1918)
It is from Oliver Wendell Holmes that we have the much-bandied phrase, “marketplace of ideas.” These were not his exact words, but the phrase does encapsulate one part of his celebrated dissenting opinion in Abrams vs. United States, a Supreme Court case that upheld the conviction of six Bolshevik propagandists under the 1918 Sedition Act. Holmes was himself no Bolshevik, and no doubt felt considerable personal loathing for the pamphlets that the conspirators had thrown from the windows of their New York City apartments, but because their being thrown did not present a “clear and present danger” to the survival of the United States, he said it was protected speech.
As Holmes wrote in his opinion,
“I think that we should be eternally vigilant against the attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”
In this passage, the word “we” refers to Justices of the Supreme Court, not the American people generally, and the word “check” refers to legal sanction by the state. In Holmes opinion, the scribbling of six hare-brained Jews did not threaten to overturn society, and it was therefore both prudent and constitutional to
“leave the correction of evil counsels to time.”
By leaving the correction of evil counsels to time, Holmes meant the Court should leave it to the men who were in the marketplace of ideas, and to whatever checks these men might devise to stop “the expression of opinions that they loathed and believed to be fraught with death.” It was the business of the Supreme Court to see that the marketplace of ideas was preserved; it was the business of men in that marketplace to see that the ideas of their rivals were destroyed.
What Holmes described in his dissenting opinion as a “marketplace,” he described elsewhere as a battlefield. As the quote at the head of this post shows, Holmes understood the contest over truth in distinctly military terms, and said as much when not constrained by the gravitas of a Supreme Court Justice.
As a young man, Holmes saw that every truth rested on the power to destroy rival truths. Within a democratic polity, this was the power to destroy rival truths polemically and politically—to win for one’s own truth a “majority vote.” Between polities, democratic or not, this was the power to “lick” one’s rivals in a feat of arms or a program of propaganda.
As an old man, Holmes saw things in exactly the same way, for here is what he said about his youthful opinion
“I think the statement was correct in so far as it implied that our test of truth is a reference to either a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view.” (“Natural Law,” 1918)
What he means is that truth either is the majority view, or is battling with a fair prospect to become the majority view. Perhaps we should call the battling truths of an imagined future majority “potential truths” or “contending truths,” but Holmes’ essential point is that, if it is to be the truth, a proposition or doctrine must battle. If it is in power, it must battle to hold that power; if it is out of power, it must battle to seize that power. Truth is simply the doctrine of the most recent victors in what Voegelin called dogmatomachy, or ideological war. Today’s victors and their truths will not be in power forever, but when their power passes, it can only be into the hands of those who will fight to take it.
The “fight for truth” is, therefore, a fight for the authority to declare the truth. In this fight, Holmes certainly believed it was an advantage to have the power of reality on your side. He was not an idealist who believed that “the universe makes no immediate objection to be conceived in any way” (Carlyle). He believed it was possible to be mistaken about the universe
“When I say that a thing is true, I mean that I cannot help believing it . . . . but . . . there are many things that I cannot help doing that the universe can” (“Ideals and Doubts,” 1915).
But he did not believe that the power of reality was a decisive advantage, since a great many incompatible doctrines comport with the evidence of the universe. The decisive advantage was to have advocates who would fight for their doctrine. After all, the fight for truth can only be won by fighters—by men and women who have the grit, determination and will to win a majority and “lick” their rivals.
“Consciously or unconsciously we all strive to make the kind of a world we like” (“Ideals and Doubts,” 1915).
“The mode in which the inevitable comes to pass is through effort” (“Ideals and Doubts,” 1915).
The universe will have its say when it comes to the truth of tomorrow, but the last word will go to the dogmatic sect that makes the effort to win the fight for their truth. And how else would you have us award the trophy of truth? Would you prefer to live by the truth of weak and irresolute men who are too timid to fight or too blundering to win!
This is what Holmes was getting at, fifty years before the essays I have been quoting, when he wrote
“I think, generally, that the fear of open discussion implies feebleness of inward conviction, and great sensitiveness to the expression of individual opinion is a mark of weakness.” (Holmes, The Professor at the Breakfast Table, 1860).
“Feebleness of inward conviction” means lack of courage to fight. The words are addressed to a young clergyman who asks for restrictions on open discussion of his truths because he wishes to be spared the trouble, or perhaps the embarrassment, of fighting for the things he says he believes.
To those who ask for such restrictions, Holmes answers, there can be no truth that is not a fighting truth, there can be no faith that is not a fighting faith, and all men who will not fight must therefore bow to those who will.
* * * * *
In his conversation with the young clergyman of feeble inward conviction, Holmes invokes the Latin phrase Veritas Odium Parit, or truth begets hatred. Cast in the terms I am using here, this means that every man naturally hates all rivals to his own truth, and therefore wills their destruction. If he is a weak and lazy poltroon, his hatred of rival truths will issue in nothing but impotent fantasies of destruction. But if his inward conviction is healthy and he has the courage to fight, he will do his best to take those rivals down.
As Holmes implies, the courage to fight for our truth requires a healthy conviction that there is “a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view.” On the battlefield of ideas, the fighters fight because they have prevailed or are confident they will one day prevail. And the losers lose because they have not, and are not, and cannot bear to be hated for their puny rival truth. Thus,
“Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening . . . . Truth gets well if she is run over by a locomotive, while error dies of lockjaw if she scratches her finger.” (The Professor at the Breakfast Table, 1860)
Truth is tough because nothing that is not tough stands any chance of seizing power and becoming the Truth. Error dies of lockjaw after a scratch because error is the name we give to opinions that die of lockjaw after they are scratched. Truth is like a football, and not like a bubble, because truth begets hatred and hated bubbles are not long for this world.
The tag Veritas Odium Parit comes from the play Andria, by the Roman playwright Terrence (166 B.C.). The complete line is Obsequium amicos, veritas odium parit, or “obsequiousness procures friends, but truth begets hatred.” The word obsequious literally means to “follow,” and indeed shares a common root with sequence, consequence, subsequent, and sequel. An obsequious man is therefore a conformist who follows the truth of other men. He is agreeable because he agrees, and he therefore has many friends.
The line is spoken in reference to Pamphilus, a character whose name means “friend to everyone,” and Pamphilus is indeed an obsequious young man who thinks what others think and does what others do. No one hates Pamphilus because Pamphilus contradicts no one, and Pamphilus contradicts no one because he bears within himself no rival truth.
* * * * *
Fighting for a despised rival truth is hard. Your enemies are clever, strong, and determined, and they of course hate you very much indeed.
“Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you (1 John 3:13)”
It is therefore hardly surprising that we should sometimes think of withdrawing, like that young clergyman, behind a wall that we ask other men to defend. With words like “freedom of speech,” “freedom of conscience” and “freedom of religion,” we ask the state to settle us on a reservation, and there permit us and our truth to die in peace. When we are overtaken by this defeatist mood, we must remember what Holmes said to that diffident young man.
“There can be no truth that is not a fighting truth, there can be no faith that is not a fighting faith, and all men who will not fight must therefore bow to those who will.”
In other words, a man who will not fight for his own truth must sooner or later become Pamphilus, obsequiously bowing to those who will. And if we choose to become Pamphilus, it is best, I think, that the transformation come sooner rather than later, because a man who has sold his soul might just as well have friends.